by Edward Castronova
In March 1999, a small number of Californians discovered a new world called “Norrath”, populated by an exotic but industrious people. Having just returned from a dangerous exploratory journey through this new world, I can report a number of interesting findings about its people and economy. About 12,000 people call it their permanent home, although some 60,000 are present there at any given time. The nominal hourly wage is about $3.42 per hour, and the labors of the people produce a GNP per capita somewhere between that of Russia and Bulgaria. A unit of Norrath’s currency is traded on exchange markets at $0.0107, higher than the Yen and the Lira. The economy is characterized by extreme inequality, yet life there is quite attractive to many. The population is growing rapidly, swollen each each day by hundreds of émigrés from various places around the globe, but especially the United States. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the new world is its location. Norrath is a virtual world that exists entirely on 40 computers in San Diego. The entire dollar-based economy is underground, since the owning company, Sony, considers everything created in the world to be its intellectual property. Unlike many internet ventures, virtual worlds are making money — with annual revenues expected to top $1.5 billion by 2004 — and if network effects are as powerful here as they have been with other internet innovations, virtual worlds may be the next step in the evolution of internet (and possibly human) culture.